Gingrich faces long odds to compete in Virginia presidential primary

December 25, 2011

In the wake of the Virginia Republican Party’s announcement Saturday morning that Newt Gingrich had not secured the required 10,000 valid signatures to run in the state’s March 6 presidential primary, a campaign spokesman declared that Gingrich is “exploring alternative methods to compete in Virginia — stay tuned.”

On Gingrich’s Facebook page, campaign director Michael Krull noted that he had spoken on Saturday morning about the Virginia setback with Gingrich, who “stated this is not catastrophic,” Krull said. But being left off the ballot in his adopted state on Super Tuesday, when Republican contests in nine other states will be fought in addition to Virginia’s, would be both a potent political and symbolic blow to the candidate who was enjoying a lead over GOP rivals in the Dominion State, according to the Quinnipiac Poll.

With analysts and some party insiders having raised doubts about the depth and skill of Gingrich’s organization, the latest news out of Virginia is certain to exacerbate concerns about the candidate’s long-term viability. Krull was quick to remind skeptics that doom had been forecast for the campaign before, in the wake of a Gingrich staff shake-up. “Remember that it was only a few months ago that pundits and the press declared us dead after the paid consultants left . . . ,” he said. “Some again will state that this is fatal.”

Krull then invoked the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, not the first time that the campaign has drawn comparisons between World War II and its own mission. “Newt and I agreed that the analogy is December 1941: We have experienced an unexpected setback, but we will regroup and refocus,” Krull said. “[I]n the end we will stand victorious.”

Legal challenge difficulties

Gingrich’s options for winning a spot on the Virginia ballot appear constrained by the election calendar — it is already relatively late in the campaign process, with the State Board of Elections scheduled to meet Wednesday. A spokesman for the Virginia Republican Party said party officials could not meet before then to hear a possible Gingrich appeal, so speculation has turned to the possibility of a legal challenge.

But such a hurdle would be no less formidable for Gingrich, forecasts University of California Irvine professor Richard L. Hasen, who specializes in election law.

“It might be too late, legally and practically speaking,” Hasen said in a telephone interview. “Legally, the standards you had to meet here were not a surprise. And, practically, you’d need to seek emergency relief — and you have ballots to be printed and, when it comes to overseas ballots, under federal law, you need to have 45 days to get the ballots done. It would be difficult.”

Yet Hasen, who describes himself as “a liberal law professor,” voices sympathy for Gingrich’s legal position, having joined a number of election experts on both ends of the legal-political spectrum who regard Virginia’s system as unnecessarily onerous — a possible violation of the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution.

In part, what Hasen and like-minded observers regard as unreasonably burdensome is the large number of signatures required under Virginia law, which also demands that at least 400 signatures for a candidate come from each of the state’s 11 congressional districts. The other Super Tuesday primary states are largely open to all major Republican candidates.

The task of candidates eager to win Virginia’s 50 Republican delegates is further complicated by a requirement that signature-gatherers must reside in the state, thereby preventing campaigns from utilizing armies of young out-of-state volunteers for the task.

Citing Gingrich’s and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s failure to get on the ballot, and other candidates’ reluctance to try, Hasen wrote, “When a majority of candidates cannot qualify for the Virginia presidential ballot, the problem is with the ballot access rules, not the candidates.”

Still, with only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) having qualified for the Virginia GOP presidential ballot, Hasen and other analysts have been quick to see the message likely to emerge from Gingrich’s disappointment in Virginia.

“There is something to the Romney [boosters’] argument that Gingrich is not well-organized — that Romney is very well-organized,” he said. But a political truth should not be confused with a legal justification for a ballot system like Virginia’s, he argued. “You could make people train for a triathlon . . . ,” he said, “but that’s not a fair way for ballot access.”

For the moment, Gingrich’s Virginia saga is likely to be touted by his detractors, especially Romney admirers, as further proof that the former speaker’s troops are badly outmanned by door-to-door troops gathering signatures and supporters for his rivals.

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